Steven W. Page, School of Human and Organizational Development
A crescendo of voices calls us to recognize that the complexity and uncertainty of the world of the 21st century challenges us to understand how things are systemically related. The purpose of this study was to explore the capacity for systemic thinking: the capacity to consciously perceive and coordinate multiple interacting systems and reflect upon self as being in relation to systems. This study attempts to identify systemic thinking more precisely, and to explain how it develops. The source of data is the constructive developmental literature, which focuses on changes in the ways individuals construct meaning throughout the lifespan. This literature contains a variety of models indicating the capacity to see how systems are related may occur for a minority of adults during development. This study was exploratory and comparative. A meta-analysis of developmental literature across the lifespan was undertaken using grounded theory method, supported by ATLAS.ti qualitative data analysis software. Literature in the fields of systems thinking and systems intelligence also informed results. Development was explored in terms of self and systems relations rather than subject and object relations. Self-in-systems theory, presented here for the first time, proposes that perceptions of self are always perceptions of self-in-relation-to-systems. It is contended that the literature provides evidence that perceptions of self, systems, and the relationship between them differ among individuals in a manner that indicates a stage-like sequence of development. This development occurs through six levels as described by the self-in-systems (SIS) model of the development of systemic thinking. Although systems are first consciously perceived at the third level, which is conventional, systemic thinking was found to emerge at the postconventional fourth level. At the fourth level, an object-self emerges: a self perceived as always in relation to systems. The fifth level, also postconventional and characterized by a more complex form of systemic thinking, is followed by a sixth trans-personal and trans-systemic level. The SIS model may offer a way to integrate the literature on development across the lifespan. In addition, the model may indicate how to integrate the systems thinking, systems intelligence, and developmental literatures.